Defacing Feeds and Google's Garden of Eden

Last week I received a couple "friend" requests, or whatever they're called, for my Facebook account, which reminded me that I have a Facebook account. I should say, had a Facebook account, because I unenrolled, or whatever the process is called. I don't remember why I'd joined in the first place, somebody I respect must have invited me. My online presence is based on my website, with YouTube bringing up a far second place, so Facebook was just another place for a clever vandal to draw a virtual mustache on my nonexistent profile image without my noticing. So I've defaced my own online presence by exiting Facebook.

I also defaced my atom feed, at least I'm sure that's how it looks in a feed reader. For the past year, I've already been manually editing my atom feed down to the last three posts, since Blogger wanted to include the last 25 posts and I couldn't figure out how to stop it. The three post atom feed still eats around a half a gigabyte of bandwidth a week, which strikes me as a criminal waste of electrons. So starting last week, I've replaced the full text feed with a simple notification service, that will supply a link to the actual post on my website. I'm open to other suggestions from readers if this is a hassle, I don't subscribe to any feeds myself so I don't know the relative pluses or minuses.

As my regular readers know, the goal of my online presence is to draw new readers through search, and these days, you can pretty much substitute "Google" for "search." Of course, there are plenty of snakes creeping around in Google's garden of Eden, and it's always been a bit of a puzzlement to me why Google doesn't cast them out on to slither on their bellies for the rest of time. I do spend a reasonable amount of time following Google's limited sourcing on this subject, especially Matt Cutts, and my conclusion is that Google is more like the old British Navy than a patient gardener.

Gardening is not a thrill a minute occupation for even the dullest human, it involves a lot of weeding, watering, watching and waiting. The goal in gardening is not to suppress the unwanted plants (even though that's a big part of the job), it's to encourage the desired plants to reach their full maturity. The gardener rejoices not in killing weeds, but in watching the fruits and flowers grow, often giving away the bulk of the produce. The gardener fights the weeds, the weather and the occasional bunny rabbit, but there's no joy in the battle.

In the days of Pax Britannica, the British Navy secured the trade routes for merchants and colonists around the world. But if you'd asked a British sailor in those days what the function of the Navy was, the answer would probably have been, "Fighting." The Navy fought pirates (when not acting as pirates) in addition to the French, Spanish, Dutch, Americans, and anybody else who cared to challenge their business model. The business model of the British Navy was prize money, which was shared amongst the crew, though not as democratically as say, pirates. Terrifying as flying splinters or getting eaten by sharks may sound, fighting was a welcome break from being crowded under the decks of a smelly, leaky wooden vessel and getting flogged.

In the days of Pax Google, the fun is apparently all in fighting the pirates, at least the 364 days a year they aren't talking like pirates. Google serves a nation of shopkeepers and shoppers, but fundamentally, it's fighting the spammers and sharp operators that makes the Googlers eyes light up and puts a smile on their faces. "Here is a foe worthy of I" quoth the computer engineer, "This beats spending a year tweaking the algorithm to determine which site explaining the role of worms in gardening should come out in the top of our search results." And that may explain why the British Navy hung pirates, while Google slaps them on the wrists and sits with them at SEO conventions. Pirates are fun, publishers are boring.

Rather than getting prize money for taking pirates (or removing their sites from Google's index), Google and its employees benefit from the improvement in their search results. As Google has the best search results around, by more than a small margin, they must be doing many things right. My take on how Google functions is entirely based on public comments of their employees and peculiarities I see in search results from time to time. It could be that they employ massive crews of gardeners who are entirely focused on getting the best discussion about worm poop to the top of the search results, but who can't say much about it in public.

But that doesn't explain why Google continues to index sites with hundreds of thousands of pages of computer generated content aimed at capturing long tail phrases. Some of these sites use scraped content from legitimate publishers, others present endless pages of search result extracts for key phrases. As near as I can tell, Google sees it as a challenge to ignore these "naughty" pages without penalizing legitimate pages on the site. Why not simply wipe them off the map? And why not attend publishing conferences rather than blackhat SEO (Silly Engineering Optimism) galas. Why not?



Natalie Wickham said...

I subscribe to your feed and wondered what happened to it when only the first sentence of this post came through. I subscribe to 100+ feeds, so I find it incredibly inconvenient to keep up with blogs that don't post a full feed. I usually read/skim a whole post that comes into my reader, but rarely click through partial feeds. I would love it if you change your mind and go back to a full feed, because I really do appreciate the information you post on this blog!

Morris Rosenthal said...


You're the first "Nay" vote, which makes me suspect I have a lot of subscribers who don't even look at the feed.

I'm aware it's not a great compromise, but I'm leaning more towards eliminating the feed altogether than to restoring it to full. I never really aspired to having subscribers, I only enabled the feed after I'd been blogging two or three years, and since the advent of Twitter, I've come to look upon feeds of all sorts as more negative than positive.

I suppose it comes down to being a bad sport, or maybe passive aggressive form of vanity, but I don't think of somebody scrolling past my title and skimming my posts for something that interests them as a plus.

I know folks who subscribe to hundreds of feeds, and pundits who subscribe to thousands. It makes me think of people who go to bookstores and look at the spines on the shelves and read the occasional dust jacket blurb or book review. I suppose it's a great way to for them to make sure they always have something to say at a dinner party or on their own social network, but I don't see the point.


Anonymous said...


You aren't making any sense. You clearly are in favor of technology that makes it easier for people to consume content - hence your use of a multi-hundred page website and a blog. So why would you deny people the opportunity to consume your content through a feed (which is how I do it)? You have nothing to lose except making the lives of your readers more difficult. Scratching my head here.


Morris Rosenthal said...


What, do you look at the feed once a week? I posted this three days ago.

I had a long talk with my social media expert last night who assured me that almost nobody sets their feed readers up for full feeds, they only get the headlines (titles) and either click through or not. So either the two of you are in the minority, or he's wrong.

But more important, and you know this from our long correspondence on the issue, is that blogging is a waste of time. If I had made a tenth of the posts I've made, I'd draw essentially the same traffic. It's true the feed exists for regular readers, but if I'm ever going to wean myself of blogging to do much more useful things, I have to start somewhere.

Maybe I'll take the summer off.


Anonymous said...

You are blogging. The question of whether or not you SHOULD blog is a different story. If you are blogging (which you are), then you have to evaluate yourself as a blogger. If you are going to quit blogging, then this isn't really a discussion about feeds at all. By the way, I would find it just as valuable if you only posted to your blog once every month or to. It is not an all or nothing thing. Rather see one post a month than have you quit entirely. No big deal.

Maybe you aren't aware of how feeds help people. The whole point of a feed is to consolidate content. Instead of visiting websites, I can read their content through my email inbox. I have my feeds all consolidated into one daily email that arrives at about 11pm. In the email is the text of all recent RSS content. Not just blog posts. I also have some favorite e-bay searches come up to show me a new item I've been waiting for. I just read through the email and read all the content right there, no clicking necessary. I like your blog enough to click if I had to, but that would just make my life more difficult. Not a whole lot more difficult, but it would defeat the point of the feed.

Additionally, about 1/2 the time, I'm reading this email on my i-phone. It is very easy to read text emails on the iphone. Conversely, to click through to a link is a pain. My cellular data network is slow and I have to wait for the page to load, then maximize it to read. Would much rather just read text emails on the iphone. The reason I do i-phone reading is that often times, I am in the mood to read when I am away from my computer - this can be a dozen different circumstances.

I would say that the non-feed users are not affected by anything you do with your feed. They never see it. The feed users are affected. None of them mind the full text, but some do mind the abbreviated version. So that is an easy logic problem.

Finally, I take issue with your evaluation that you don't care about your readers who only "scan" your blog posts once a week. What, are you the reading police? There are many different reading styles and purposes. Sometimes I scan your post and find it irrelevant and boring, other times I re-read a post you wrote 10 times, take notes, and think about it obsessively for a month following - and in these cases it usually has vast impact on how I run my business. Who are you to tell me when and how I "should" read or how valuable I am as a reader of yours.

Anyway, just some thoughts on the feed issue.


Morris Rosenthal said...


It's not you, it's me:-)

Seriously, if I was worried about people having something else to skim through in their mailbox, I'd have a subscription newsletter rather than a blog.

I also think you missed the very start of the post, where I explained that the 7,000 or so feed accesses I get on a bad day eat more dandwidth than the rest of my pages put together, which I simply find offensive. I suppose I could try to force caching, but I'd have to hassle my host for thatm which I'd rather not do. I don't have 7,000 subscribers, probably 150 or 200, but some of them (or some bots) beat the heck out of the feed.

On the reading police issue, I certainly am, at least for my site. You might be forgetting that "this feed is a free service of Foner Books". I hope you haven't been buying multiple copies of my books and burning them just for the sake of sending money my way. So I'm not out to please anybody here, other than myself.


Barbara Frank said...


I'd be disappointed if you took the summer off, as I find most of your posts to be quite thought-provoking. But I certainly understand why you might want to do so.

I take occasional breaks from my blog, and don't see a big drop in book sales.....which makes me wonder why I'm posting as often as I do. But I do enjoy getting to "know" those who visit my site, and would miss them if I stopped blogging. Also, I see my work as a ministry to those with less homeschooling experience than I have, and enjoy answering their questions.

Guess it's a female thing, as my husband thinks I blog too much and need to buckle down on the next book. And he's probably right.

Enjoy your summer, blogging or not!

Morris Rosenthal said...


Thank you for the kind words.

I just rented someshared office space for the summer (super cheap) just to see if a change in space will do me some good.

I'm big on the ministry thing myself, but I increasingly see the mission as convincing people to publish online, as opposed talking about the mechanics of self publishing.

The sad truth is that most self publishers only absorb the how-to parts and ignore he how-not-to parts, to the point I'm almost afraid to write anything positive about the business. If writers can't get readers online, they aren't likely to expand their readership by spending money publishing a book.